’Tis the season for remembering momentous occasions.
Last month we honored the 75th anniversary of D-Day. But beyond that, 2019 may well be a “dream year” for historians looking at golden anniversaries.
The year 1969 brought us Apollo 11 achieving the greatest feat man has ever dared; the Stonewall riots; and Sen. Ted Kennedy driving off the bridge at Chappaquiddick Island, leaving a young woman who worked for him to drown, and ruining Kennedy’s presidential prospects in the process.
Other notable oldies that turned, or will turn, golden this year: Woodstock; the Manson Family murders; the military’s first test of the forerunner to the internet and the first lottery draft; Walmart’s incorporation; the premiere of “Sesame Street”; the Beatles’ last public performance; the charging of Lt. William Calley in the My Lai massacre; James Earl Ray’s guilty plea for killing Dr. Martin Luther kIng Jr.; and Sirhan Sirhan’s confession to murdering Sen. Robert Kennedy.
New York City sports fans celebrated championships over rivals from Baltimore: first, the underdog Jets beat the Colts in Super Bowl III, then the “Miracle” Mets snared the World Series title after defeating the Orioles.
It’s quite a laundry list. But buried within all these significant events were two important developments in our political history that, unlike much of the above, remain relevant today.
On Nov. 3, 1969, President Richard Nixon went on TV to outline his policy to end the Vietnam War. Nixon in part lashed out at antiwar protesters, maintaining “North Vietnam cannot defeat or humiliate the United States. Only Americans can do that.” Near the end of the 32-minute address, he urged “the great silent majority of my fellow Americans” to rally behind his peace plan.
Ten days later, in Des Moines, Iowa, Vice President Spiro Agnew delivered a televised speech that reflected on Nixon’s talk. Agnew launched a tirade against the largely negative TV news coverage that immediately followed Nixon’s speech. He argued editorializing by the news networks -- there were only three then -- had undermined the president. Agnew proclaimed, “The people of this country have the right to make up their own minds and form their own opinions about a presidential address without having the president’s words and thoughts characterized through the prejudices of hostile critics before they can even be digested.”
Continuing, Agnew declared that what’s news was decided by a “tiny, enclosed fraternity of privileged men elected by no one and enjoying a monopoly sanctioned and licensed by government.” Their views, he said, “do not -- and I repeat, not -- represent the views of America.”
Agnew then assailed how they operate: “Bad news drives out good news. The irrational is more controversial than the rational. Concurrence can no longer compete with dissent.” The vice president added, “The labor crisis settled at the negotiating table is nothing compared to the confrontation that results in a strike -- or better yet, violence along the picket lines. Normality has become the nemesis of the network news. Now the upshot of all this controversy is that a narrow and distorted picture of America often emerges from the televised news.”
“Perhaps,” Agnew suggested, “the place to start looking for a credibility gap is not in the offices of the government in Washington but in the studios of the networks in New York.” He encouraged the public to call out their “bias.”
Hence, the conservatives’ allegation of liberal media bias was born.
With President Donald Trump in the White House, Agnew’s speech oddly resonates today. The major media want us to believe the current climate in Washington is unique, an aberration. But looking back over the last half-century, Agnew could have been discussing Ford’s brief term, or when Reagan or both Bushes served. The only difference is that while Agnew steadfastly avoided blaming newspapers, today they and internet sites could be added to his critique -- while acknowledging Fox News has filled the void on the right, without exactly balancing the scale.
The major media and their allies protest in denial when this accusation emerges. But perhaps it is Republicans who should refrain from complaining. Since Agnew delivered those barbed words, Republicans have made plenty of political hay, and won plenty of elections, by successfully selling the “silent majority” on the idea that the national media operate as an adjunct of the Democratic Party, and hold beliefs that run counter to America’s history, principles and traditions. And in response to the GOP’s sniping, the media ridiculously just keep feeding Republicans ammo.
Many wondrous things occurred in 1969. But maybe least appreciated among them is when Nixon and Agnew took off the gloves and began pointing out that the pillars of the Fourth Estate leaned to the left.
Bill Thompson is the editorial page editor of The Ledger in Lakeland, Florida.